Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 38;   September 19, 2018: Columbo Tactics: II

Columbo Tactics: II

by

Last updated: September 19, 2018

This is Part II of a series showing how the less powerful can adapt the tactics of TV detective Lt. Columbo when they're interacting with the more powerful.
Four clutches of reed warbler eggs, each with a cuckoo egg present, on display in Bedford Museum

Four clutches of reed warbler eggs, each with a cuckoo egg present, on display in Bedford Museum, United Kingdom. Some cuckoo species are brood parasites, which means that they rely on other species to raise their young. This is often accomplished with egg mimicry, as shown in the image above. In each clutch the cuckoo egg is the largest one. But because the egg is similar enough to the reed warbler eggs, the host is deceived.

Lt. Columbo uses an analogous strategy when questioning suspects. By inserting his most critical questions in amongst a stream of irrelevant questions and general patter, his suspects often remain unaware that they have just given themselves away. Photo by Simon Speed courtesy Wikimedia.

In the workplace, when the more powerful interact with the less powerful, or the much less powerful, they're at risk of overestimating their power. They do have superior organizational power, but they might not have superior intellectual power. Using the tactics of TV detective Lt. Columbo, the less powerful can achieve a kind of parity that enables everyone to perform at their potential.

As described last time, a situation in which the Columbo strategy is helpful occurs when a project manager (Patricia), whose project is struggling, must deal with a committee of senior managers formed into an Emergency Reaction Force (ERF), to help Patricia sort out her troubled project.

Here's Part II of a catalog of tactics based on Columbo's tactics, but also applicable to Patricia's situation. Read Part I first if you haven't.

Gather information on your own
Even though Columbo invested significant effort and attention in questioning his prime suspect, he also conducted other investigations to gather, among other things, relevant information about the suspect's movements and the state of the suspect's knowledge.
For example, if the obstacle is a failure of the departmental IT leads to deliver needed information about the number of desktop computers that need upgrades, Patricia makes certain that she has the latest data each morning, even though the upgrades are incomplete. She also has reports from the upgrade team indicating how many systems had been upgraded the previous night. By comparing her data, day-to-day, with the data from the upgrade team, she can check them consistency.
Bury the critical question in amongst irrelevant questions
As Lt. Columbo knew, some questions are so unusual that they cause the suspect to wonder, "Why did he ask that?" To avoid so alerting the suspect, he would insert such questions in amongst a series of other seemingly innocent or irrelevant questions. He could then get the information he needed without alarming the suspect. This technique helps him achieve the strategic goal of keeping the suspect calm.
Patricia can do Perhaps the most famous of
Columbo's tactics might be
called One-Last-Thing
something analogous if she needs information from the ERFs. The kind of information most valuable to her is that which reveals what the ERFs know or don't know about the project, or what they believe is the source of the problem. Asking them directly is risky, but a question inserted in amongst questions about how to carry out what they've directed her to do might not be.
Ask one-last-thing when you already know the answer
Perhaps the most famous of Columbo's tactics might be called One-Last-Thing. Just as he was ending an interview of the suspect, he'd halt in mid-stride, scrunch his forehead, point to his right temple, and exclaim, "Oh, I almost forgot." His gestures, timing, and tone all communicate that the question he's about to ask is truly unimportant. But, of course, it later turns out to be the final nail. At the time, though, the suspect doesn't notice how important it is.
Patricia can do something similar. If she's done her homework (see "Gather information on your own" above), she might know something that renders dubious what she has just been directed to do by the ERFs. She has asked a question or two about it, raising some minor issue or other, and the ERFs have reassured her and told her, "Just do it," or something equally condescending. She agrees, and says, "OK, will do." Then, just as the meeting is ending, she says, "Oh, I almost forgot, Chicago told me last night that X" and then asks the question that reveals a basic flaw in the ERFs' plan. By doing so, Patricia helps to establish that her sources of information are quite good, and that she does know something about managing this project.
There are some risks associated with using this tactic. Because of the importance of the non-verbal elements of Columbo's technique, it's difficult to get the level of impact in a phone conference at work that Columbo can achieve in person. And if the ERFs include people familiar with Lt. Columbo and his tactics, they might recognize it. But these two points aside, it's very effective.

In 69 episodes, Lt. Columbo used a wide range of tactics to solve numerous crimes. The six tactics I've described are perhaps the most memorable and adaptable, but certainly there are more. Enjoy your further research. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Congruent Decision-Making: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Mars as seen by the Hubble TelescopeMore Indicators of Scopemonging
Scope creep — the tendency of some projects to expand their goals — is usually an unintended consequence of well-intentioned choices. But sometimes, it's part of a hidden agenda that some use to overcome budgetary and political obstacles.
1988 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman celebrating his eightieth birthdayPolitical Framing: Strategies
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
The Dalles of the St. Croix RiverThe Politics of the Critical Path: II
The Critical Path of a project is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. We don't usually consider tasks that are already complete, but they, too, can experience the unique politics of the critical path.
Melrose Diner, Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaThe Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: II
Anecdotes are powerful tools of persuasion, but with that power comes a risk that we might become persuaded of false positions. Here is Part II of a set of examples illustrating some hazards of anecdotes.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there.

See also Workplace Politics and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

What an implicit interrogation can look likeComing November 27: Implicit Interrogations
Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the nature of implicit interrogations? Available here and by RSS on November 27.
Benches at the beachAnd on December 4: Implicit Interrogation Tactics
When one person tries surreptitiously to extract information from another at work, an implicit interrogation is taking place. Here are seven tactics that people use to interrogate others without revealing what they're doing. Available here and by RSS on December 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.